christianity

A while back, robhu was looking for Bible study courses, and nlj21 recommended TEAM, a course which is run by the vicar of an offshoot of my old church (you might remember my posting about his sermon on The God Delusion).

I poked at the media site. Surprisingly, I didn’t make a bee-line for the sex one: anyone who has been in an evangelical church for any length of time has heard 1 Cor 7 preached to death, and knows that sex is a Good Thing if you’re married (but if you’re very keen on evangelism, or merely very bad at talking to girls, you can be “single for the gospel”). Instead, I picked on the evangelism one, specifically the Q&A session (that’s a link to the audio, which you may want in a minute) on how to convert your friends. Know your enemy, right? 🙂

John Richardson(edited: I got the name wrong initially, apologies to Richardson and Woodcock should either read this)Pete Woodcock, the speaker, is a straight-forward sort of bloke. He’s also pretty funny. The Q&A starts with a worked example of how to talk to various types of people about Jesus, which says sensible stuff about working out where people are coming from, sensitivity and suchlike, while also having a slightly cheeky approach (he talks about how he gave the residents of a new estate flyers saying “your foundations are crumbling“, for example).

There were a couple of bits which stood out as quick shocking. Looking at it from the evangelical viewpoint, I’d say Woodcock is being consistent with it, and that this is so much the worse for the evangelical viewpoint. See what you think.

<lj-cut text=”Pray for your well off friends to have an accident, pray for obstructive liberal vicars to be converted or to die”>To be even-handed, I’ll put these shocking statements in some context. So, at around 29:40, he’s midway through responding to the question of how you deal with people who have a good life and don’t think they need God (remind them that they’re going to die and they don’t get to decide when that’ll be, as this parable does). We then get this (my transcription for the purpose of criticism, ellipses are where he tails off and changes tack rather than where I’ve elided something):

I know people get shocked when I say this, but someone was asking me the other day about their son, who’s doing really well, and I said, why don’t you pray that he has a nasty accident? Have you ever prayed that? You know, it does sound weird, doesn’t it? Well, why not? Because, you know, we don’t want… I don’t know, I want to help that person, and if having an accident, and taking away his money, and taking away his car, and the very things that he’s put… if his gods are exposed, then I need to pray that his gods will be exposed for the false gods that they are, in order that I can teach him about the reality of God.

(The bit about “his gods” here is an occurrence of the evangelical trope that “everyone worships something”, so the gods referred to are the money, the car and so on).

A bit later, around 32:20, he’s asked about how to get your nice middle-class neighbours in to realise that going to their local village church doesn’t mean they’re saved. He recommends getting them into a Bible study group. The questioner says the local vicar is against that sort of thing (maybe because the vicar doesn’t like evangelicals, maybe because the vicar is a control freak, probably both: the politics of village churches can get pretty nasty). He recommends telling the villagers to make their own minds up about things. We get to about 37:15 and this happens:

But don’t morally worry about a dead vicar that is preaching heresy. He’s a liar, you know, if he’s not preaching the truth, that man is a liar and will be judged. He is in desperate trouble. You can pray for his soul, and pray that he’ll get converted, but do not allow him to dictate anything. He is a liar, and doing people harm, and if he’s stopping them getting into the Bible, then God, take him from this world or save him. That’s the prayer: Lord, stop him, somehow, either by killing him or saving him. That’s the prayer I have for our local vicar in Kingston. I ask the Lord to take his life or save his soul. I prefer to have his soul saved, but take him, or at least, take him away from our town, cos he’s a liar.



It’s lucky this chap isn’t a Muslim, or he’d have his own Channel 4 documentary team doing a programme on him. We’re not quite in Undercover Mosque territory, as there’s no suggestion of giving God a helping hand with the brake lines (not worrying about a “dead vicar” here probably refers to a spiritually dead vicar, i.e., one who is not an evangelical Christian): at least praying for something gives God the option of saying no.

These are off the cuff responses to questions. I imagine the poor chap never thought they would turn up on some atheist’s blog. But the important thing to realise is that, as far as I can tell, Woodcock is perfectly consistent with evangelicalism, consistent in a way which even many evangelicals are not (the lack of consistency in the other evangelicals is possibly a manifestation of belief in belief: they think it’s good to believe in hell, so they say they believe in hell, but they don’t anticipate-as-if there’s a hell). If you ask your evangelical friends where you’re going when you die, if you’re not a Christian, they’ll tell you’re going to Hell. Hell is the worst thing ever, so keeping you out of it is pretty important. What are horrific injuries in the temporal world compared to an eternity in hell? What is the death of one man if it leads to the salvation of many?

One might quibble about the advice to pray for this stuff, rather than, say, praying for God to convert the person or get the vicar out of the way and letting God sort it out. For some reason, it’s usually thought to be better to pray for specific stuff rather than generalities. If we concede that it would be right for God to do this stuff, it’s surely right to pray for it. So would it be right for God to do it? Recalling that whatever God does is right, that the Bible is inerrant, and that the Bible says that God isn’t averse to killing people that get in the way of his chosen people, it’s hard to say that smiting recalcitrant vicars isn’t something God might do (it’s right to pray that the vicar gets converted, but recall also that God doesn’t force himself on people to make them converted, so the smiting is a useful backup plan if the vicar won’t become a real Christian). In the case of the car accident, we know from C.S. Lewis that pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

Speaking of car accidents, this sort of thing does make you want to have a Barlet moment, doesn’t it?

My wife has been blogging about ancient literature. She’s started with The Epic of Gilgamesh and moved on to the Old Testament, starting with the similarities between the Flood and creation stories in Genesis and Gilgamesh. More will be appearing on scribb1e‘s journal in future.

As part of some sort of cultural exchange programme, I’ve been reading Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s The Life of the Buddha, a telling of the Buddha’s life using excerpts from the Pali canon. It’s interesting, although very strange in places, mostly because of the cosmology of the time. I think it could do with a glossary explaining some of the Pali words which Nanamoli chose not to translate. I’d not realised the Buddha had superpowers (he regularly reads minds, and occasionally does cool stuff like preventing a robber from catching him even though the robber’s running as fast as he can), or that lots of supernatural beings were present at his birth. I’ll probably write more about it when I’ve finished it.

In a conversation with a Christian (edited: who was actually robhu, as Rob’s given me permission to say) recently, I asked my usual question on personal relationships with God: why do all these people who claim to have one end up disagreeing? How do we know who to believe? To paraphrase their arguments:

<lj-cut>Some “Christians” aren’t true Christians. Which is fair enough, I think, if my question is specifically why Christians disagree. There’s a more general point though, of which more later.

God chooses to interact with humans in a human way, as exemplified by Jesus. He never promised to give people a way to tell who was right. A quick read of the Bible shows that God didn’t always interact in this way. Even in the New Testament, we’re promised there will be signs accompanying those who believe, some of which I’d find pretty convincing if I saw them: I’d certainly respect the religious claims of people doing that stuff more than people who don’t, because they’re showing they can do something inexplicable which is at least worth investigating. Any Christians volunteering to drink poison? 😉 Edited to add: robhu rightly points out that textual critics say this passage has doubtful provenance. Evangelicals generally say the Bible is inerrant “as originally given”, which raises some other questions, since there’s scholarly debate about what was in original manuscripts. Edited to further add: John 14:11-13 promises that whoever has faith in Jesus will do even greater miracles than him, so the odd amputee healing doesn’t seem too much to ask of Christians.

What is noticeable is that God seems to do special effects less and less as we get closer to the present time. Edward Current argues that God’s ability to hide shows how powerful God is, and that God is testing our faith, but, despite his obvious sincerity, I’m not convinced. I think there might be a simpler explanation.

God wants people to know him rather than treating him as an encyclopedia. I suppose the objection to treating God as an encyclopedia must be that it is impersonal, rather than an argument that having access to correct information actually impedes learning. So let’s imagine a world in which God was not an encyclopedia but a teacher of Christians, a good sort of teacher who made the lessons interesting but didn’t let fights break out in the classroom. Does that world look like this one?

Aren’t you just asking why God doesn’t announce his presence? I suppose I am. Annoyingly, someone has got to that question before me and made my arguments better than I can. The brilliant Richard Carrier’s essay Why I am not a Christian (not to be confused with Bertrand Russell’s essay of the same name) contains a section called God is Silent which points out the contradiction between what Christians say God is like and how he acts. Go read it.

My arguments about Christians and their relationship with God are, as my correspondent rightly says, a special case of the general argument that God is silent. Talking about Christians specifically negates one of the common defences against that argument, namely that if God were too obvious, it would do away with free will. But Carrier points out that such defences are ad hoc: who thought to mention that God values free will above almost everything else before people started debating the problems of silence and of evil? What is the evidence for this? If you’re evangelical, where does the Bible say that God values free will so highly? Christians can’t even agree that people have it, let alone that God values it.

God’s silence, and his entrusting of what we’re told is a very important rescue mission to a bunch of people who are pretty bad it, are pretty powerful arguments that he’s not there. If I saw any amputees miraculously healed, though, I’d certainly reconsider.

robhu made a post on the Two Ways to Live presentation, which summarises the important points of evangelical Christianity. That particular posting’s intended to be evangelistic without getting de-railed by knowledgeable atheists, so I’ve move my original comment on it from there to here at Rob’s request. This posting remains open for whatever discussion you’d like to have on it (as do most of Rob’s), subject to my comment policy. Here’s my comment:

Serious points about the video, rather than silly ones, in no particular order:

The video doesn’t summarise Christianity, it summarises evangelical Christianity. You won’t find many universalists or liberals agreeing with it, and I think the Catholics would at least take a different slant on it. So I think it’s a mistake to leave out the “evangelical” qualification when talking about TWTL, unless you really do think those people aren’t Christians (which I don’t think you do).

<lj-cut text=”And another thing…”>TWTL assumes the hearer is prepared to accept that God exists in the first place, and that reading the Bible the evangelical way is a good way to find out what God thinks. This isn’t a problem if the intention is to summarise evangelical Christianity, but it is a problem if your intention is to persuade other people to believe it (which is usually what TWTL is for), because you’re not presenting any evidence.

There’s a difference between creating an inanimate object (like a mug) for a purpose and creating a person. People develop their own ideas about what their purpose is, and we don’t accord their creators (parents) the absolute right to determine it. Of course, a Christian could respond that God is supposed to be much greater than human parents, but in that case he stands in relation to us as a parent does to a very young child, or to an animal. In that case, we’d accept his right to bring us up how he wanted, but the way he ignores some children in favour of others and his eventual decision to shove those who aren’t his favourites in an oven when he’s tired of being patient with them would then become a matter for the NSPCC.

Penal substitutionary atonement doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. God is supposed to be so keen on justice that someone must pay for sin, but not so keen on justice that it matters whether he punishes the right person. Furthermore, in the Trinitarian understanding, Jesus is himself God, so the action of punishing himself starts to look like a game of solitaire. As gjm11 says, sin is so trifling that turning to Jesus can get you off, but so grave that an omnipotent God really has to send people to Hell if they don’t turn to Jesus.

The video guy repeats the claim that we shouldn’t wish God to deal with evil in case he zaps us right now, making God out to be about as clever as George Bush, with shock and awe the only thing in his toolbox. As we’ve discussed before, that argument doesn’t hold up.

It’s rather late, and I’m sat up listening to Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme. I’ve been following their podcasts since I was on the programme a while back. The chap on the latest programme (MP3 link), Jonathan Castro, believes in Christianity but doesn’t have the relationship with God which he’s been expecting, and sounds a bit fed up about it.

There was some discussion of what the relationship Castro expected was. One caller blamed the excesses of the charismatic movement (check out the responses for some other musical variants) for the expectation that the relationship would be an intense emotional experience. The Christians in the studio disagreed that this was what Castro expected. They thought the sort of relationship he meant was like a relationship with a spouse, which has emotional component without usually giving you the full Benny Hinn thing. Christians like the spousal analogy, but I think it’s pretty hopeless: they’re using a special meaning of the word relationship which encompasses warm feelings without any communication from the object of desire. I think it’d probably be more appropriate to describe Christians as God’s stalkers.

Listening to the programme, I wonder why Castro’s still going to all this trouble. In the comments on this exchristian.net article from 2007 he sounds like he’s already given up, but he turns up on Premier sounding like he hasn’t quite let go. If I were him there’s one obvious conclusion I’d’ve come to about whether a there’s a God who wants a relationship with me. I wanted to yell this spoiler at him.

Still, he has gone to the trouble, so I’ll add to the standard questions I usually ask of people who say they have a relationship with God: what of Castro and people like him, the earnest seekers who don’t find?

One of Castro’s criticisms of the churches he attended was that they were too emasculating. He turns up in the comments on the BBC’s article about Geezers for Jesus (“to the geezers, I become as a geezer, init”, as St Paul might have said), mentioning charismatic worship songs. Interestingly, Matt Redman, perpetrator of many of the “Jesus is my boyfriend” choruses familiar to anyone who’s been to Soul Survivor, agrees that worship songs aren’t for the blokes.

There seems to have been a reaction against this emasculation of the church, with Americans writing books about how Jesus wants Christian men to be Iron John. robhu recently wrote a scathing review of one of them, John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart. I’ve talked about my own experiences as a nerdy CU bloke in the comments.

Metafilter had a posting on the ideas behind His Dark Materials a while back. It contains links to the video of a documentary where Melvyn Bragg interviews Pullman, as well as to articles discussing his literary influences, from Blake and Milton to Arthur Ransome.

The Plot

This set me to reading the books again. I enjoyed them. Pullman’s a craftsman, and the books show off both his skill in writing and his imagination. I still found the ending, the final separation of Lyra and Will, rather forced. Nick Lowe wrote The Well Tempered Plot Device, which partly deals with authorial insertions, not of a character who stands for the author, but of an object which stands for the Plot, so that, for example, we can say that “Darth Vader has turned to the Dark Side of the Plot” (this is also the essay which introduced “Clench Racing”, a sport for as many players as you have Stephen Donaldson books). scribb1e riffed on this, explaining that at the end of His Dark Materials “there can only be one hole in the Plot”, the one which leads out of the land of the dead.

Pullman’s stories are satisfying because they borrow from the greats: the Bible, Milton, Book of Common Prayer (where else does anyone learn the word “oblation”?) and the the English hymnal (“frail children of dust”). I doubt the Bible’s or the BCP’s authors would approve of His Dark Materials, but, as lisekit says, great art is characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation.

The authors

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that God doesn’t exist, and that evangelicalism is like fandom (the latter wasn’t entirely an original idea of mine: livredor defines midrash as Biblical fan fiction). All these people who claim to be in a relationship with God obviously aren’t, so what are they doing? I think they’re not writing fan fiction but living it, creating their own stories in a world they see as belonging to the divine Author, stories which occur after their canon has ended.

In fandom, inserting yourself into the world you’re writing fan fiction about is seen as passé by the experts. There’s a disparaging term for characters who are obviously authorial self-insertions, Mary Sue. In religion, it’s not quite the same. You can and should insert yourself into the story, but you’d better not get too far above yourself if you do, unless you’re very convincing (this isn’t that dissimilar to fandom, since the real objection to Mary Sues is that they’re too perfect). C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that Christians do not know whether they will be given bit parts or starring roles, but their job is to play them as best they can.

The disagreements within religions which are based on the same book are similar to the disagreements within Harry Potter fandom before the final book came out, about whether Ginny or Hermione should end up with Harry. The bitterest disagreements are always about sex, as illustrated by the perpetually imminent division (Rilstone wrote that in 2004) of Anglicanism into the ones who believe God hates shrimp and the ones who don’t believe in God.

Unlike Potter fandom, in Bible fandom there’s no-one who can produce the universally recognised Word of God, settling the matter with a final book (if you want to remain within the canons of your religion, that is: the Mormons and the Baha’i have taken the approach of adding a new book, as Christianity itself did to Judaism), so people end up grouping themselves into communities which more-or-less share a view on the One True Pairing, and the ideas of each community become fanon to those within it. The Bible is rich soil for this sort of thing because it is great art and so admits multiple interpretations.

The Story

What’s the point of living this way? To be in a story with meaning. lumpley speaks of the fun of roleplaying games as coming from three possible sources: one, wish-fulfilment; two, strategy and tactics; and three, “the fun of facing challenging moral, ethical, or socially informative situations”. He splits up games into two approaches:

Approach one: “made up journalism.” The conceit is, the characters and events of the game are real. The lives of the characters don’t have meaning, the same way that our real lives don’t have meaning. Approach two: fiction. Fiction, unlike life, is all meaning all the time. I prefer approach two. In particular, it’s very difficult to take approach one and yet get fun type three.

What does he mean by “our real lives don’t have meaning”? That shit (notably death) just happens. Wash’s I’m a leaf on the wind/I’m a leaf on a rake death scene in Serenity is shocking, and Anyone Can Die is a rare trope in fiction (except if you’re watching something by Joss Whedon), because we expect fiction to give us meanings for significant events.

So then, God is the Plot, in Lowe’s sense of the word, and if you believe, the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse. If you die, it’s what the Plot wanted. Your community knows they’re reading the canon the right way, that Harry really loves Hermione, that God disapproves of gay sex, or whatever, and everyone else has misunderstood the Plot. Of course, it’s not just about reading the book: you have the spirit of a dragonGod in you, however odd that sounds.

The reason Lowe can mock the Plot is that bad fiction leans on it so hard that it becomes ridiculous. The reader becomes too aware that they’re reading fiction and loses their suspension of disbelief. Why lose it? Because all readers know deep down that reality doesn’t come invested with meaning in that way.

I mentioned Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus in my response to nlj21‘s complaint that Karen Armstrong does not provide a source for her claim that the Apostle Paul didn’t write the Pastoral Epistles.

I re-read the book while we were on holiday recently. I’d recommend it, despite the rather sensationalist cover advertising (“OMG the King James Version’s text is bollox, sorry, ‘corrupted and inferior'”: we all knew that, right?), as a lucid introduction to New Testament textual criticism. Luckily, if you’re too cheap to buy it, there’s a video of a lecture covering the book’s key points, available from Google. Ehrman’s an engaging speaker. His responses to questions at the end are particularly good (especially the one from the bloke who’s clearly read Elvis Shot Kennedy: Freemasonry’s Hidden Agenda and therefore “knows” that Jesus spent a lot of time travelling round India before marrying Mary Magdalene).

Ehrman’s another ex-evangelical, who now describes himself as an agnostic. The Washington Post article on him attributes his loss of faith to textual problems (Erhman started out as an inerrantist, a position he found untenable as he studied the NT texts) and the problem of suffering.

On suffering, if, like me, you’re a fan of Bishop Tom (N.T.) Wright and of Ehrman, you’ll probably enjoy their blog debate on the Problem of Evil.

On the Biblical text, people can and do dispute Ehrman’s claims. This review on Ben Witherington’s blog has some good comments from both sides of the debate (if anyone does speak Greek, I’d be interested in whether the grammar of Matthew 28:19 does imply that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one person as Ben says). Some of the Bible’s defenders are at pains to point out that one can still believe even knowing that the Bible is a very human document which records religious experiences (some of them wouldn’t say that, of course, and defend something like inerrancy). But Dan Barker’s comment evokes the sort of feeling I can imagine Ehrman having as his inerrantist beliefs collapsed, that is, the feeling that he’d been lied to by his evangelical teachers.

There are other good reasons for thinking evangelicalism is probably incorrect, namely that it’s an extra-biblical tradition despite claiming not to be and that it commits you to interpretations which do violence to the Biblical text in an attempt to maintain its inerrancy. Ehrman’s reason seems to strike at the heart of the thing, though: study the history of the text enough and it becomes impossible to take the attitude to it that evangelicals do.

In the comments on a recent posting of mine, there are several discussions on the subjects of consciousness, Hell, whether a choice is free if the chooser is subject to threats, and a whole bunch of other stuff. robhu is speaking for the “we sinners all deserve to burn, but God is so super that he saves some people” side, gjm11 for the opposition. I’ve been busy all day so haven’t had much chance to contribute. I think it’s shaping up to be the post of mine with the most comments. Have fun.

In a not entirely shocking move (although I was kind of expecting it earlier, rather than now), robhu has re-converted to evangelical Christianity. His stated reasons are that he doesn’t want to be a philosophical zombie and he kind of feels God is real. More reasons as we have them.

This sort of thing can happen to the best of us. Stay vigilant.

Things that caught my eye on the web recently:

  • marnanel supplies the ultimate version of all those “which local dialect do you speak?” questionnaires that people have been doing lately.

  • Zarf, otherwise known as Andrew Plotkin, gives us LOLGRUES. Makes a change from cats, I suppose.

  • scribb1e thought I’d like The Ongoing Adventures of ASBO Jesus. Some of them are good, some of them are typical “the church is the people, not the building” Christian greeting-card verse (but as cartoons!) The artist shows some signs of creationism, but as I’m no longer a Christian, I don’t have to do my “please get off my side, you’re making it look stupid” bit.

    Inevitably, the cartoon with the most comments is the one about gay marriage. Inamongst the usual godhatesfags stuff (or rather, God hates the faggotry but loves the fags, naturally) there were a couple of links to interesting interviews with N.T. Wright (no relation), the Bishop of Durham. There was also an interesting comment from Tyler on just what Paul did mean by arsenokoites (the word translated by the NIV as homosexual offenders, about which there’s considerable debate as it’s a novel coinage as far as we know). Tyler points out that the Septuagint puts the two words that Paul has used in his portmanteau word right next to each other in everyone’s favourite bit of Leviticus (scroll down a bit for the Greek). So it looks like you practising gays (or even those of you who aren’t practising because you’ve got very good at it) are pretty much out as far as Christianity goes. Have you considered atheism?

  • If your internet connection comes from BT, Virgin Media or Carphone Warehouse’s Talktalk service, you should be aware of the evil that is Phorm, a cunning plan to intercept all your web browsing and use the knowledge of what you’re interested in (from your web searches) to display targetted advertising on collaborating websites. Richard Clayton has spoken to Phorm and has technical details of how the system works. It’s a horrible hack, in all senses of the word.

    Talktalk aren’t all bad though: they just told the British recording industry to get stuffed in a highly entertaining way. The BPI are now threatening to sue.